The most touching film to emerge from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival is Curmudgeons, a 16-minute short from the DeVito family. It also serves as a lovingly made swan song for its star, the character actor David Margulies, who passed away shortly after filming.
Directed by Danny DeVito and produced by Danny and his kids, Jake and Lucy DeVito, the film tells the story of Ralphie (Margulies), a grumpy old man confined to an assisted living facility. One day, he’s visited by his granddaughter (Lucy DeVito), who has a little surprise in store: She’s brought along Jackie (Danny DeVito), Ralphie’s longtime pal turned paramour. He confesses his undying love for Ralphie, and then—much to the old fogey’s surprise—proposes marriage.
Curmudgeons took on an added dimension when, in early January, Margulies passed away at the age of 78. The Brooklyn native appeared in dozens of films and TV shows, most notably as Tony Soprano’s lawyer Neil Mink on The Sopranos and as the larger-than-life Mayor Lenny Clotch (a parody of Ed Koch) in the Ghostbusters films, where he uttered the famous line: “Being miserable and treating people like dirt is every New Yorker’s God-given right.”
“David and I have known each other since ’68. We did a play at the Sheridan Square Playhouse, and we’ve worked together ever since in little off-Broadway things,” says Danny DeVito. “He directed me in a play called The Shrinking Bride, and over the years we became really good friends.”
On Jan. 17, 1971, DeVito met his future wife, Rhea Perlman, when she went to check out a friend in The Shrinking Bride. And Curmudgeons comes in large part thanks to their children, Lucy and Jake DeVito.
When Lucy graduated from Brown University, she began training at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in Midtown Manhattan—the same place her father worked at years ago with Margulies. She invited her father and brother to check out a one-act play by her friend Joshua Conkel, starring Margulies. That play was Curmudgeons.
“We were just talking about the play after and I thought, ‘This would make a really good short film,’” recalls Lucy.
She brought it up again last summer, and her producer brother Jake agreed.
“We’ve been looking for stuff to do together, reading a lot of scripts, and Jake and I have a deal with FX, but this came to be the first thing we did,” says the elder DeVito.
They filmed in October in New York, but shortly after filming wrapped, Margulies’s health worsened, and he was hospitalized. So the crew whipped together a rough cut in just two weeks to show their star.
“David was not feeling very well,” Danny remembers. “He was in the middle of a couple of heavy-duty things, but he really, really wanted to do it, and I know that it was a wonderful thing for us to do. We shot it and he was in a critical area of his life—he was a trouper. Two weeks after we shot, he went into the hospital, and by that time we had a cut. I wanted him to see it and brought it to his house, and we showed it in his living room. He loved it.”DeVito begins to tear up. “He was a dear, dear friend, and it’s an amazing loss.”
The 71-year-old DeVito, a screen legend who’s starred in too many cherished films to mentions, has made headlines of late as a celebrity surrogate of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. And, since Curmudgeons focuses on a relationship between two men, DeVito chose to weigh in on North Carolina’s notorious HB2—otherwise known as the “bathroom bill.” For those in the dark, the bill stripped LGBT people of discrimination protection in places of “public accommodation.” That protection would have, among many other things, allowed transgender people to use the public bathroom of the gender they self-identify as and essentially barred cities and local governments in the state from expanding protections to the LGBT community.
“Oh my god, it’s ridiculous,” says Danny. “North Carolina is basically a pariah now. These people don’t understand what humanity is. They don’t have an evolutionary bone in their body. I think the people of North Carolina need to rise up against all this legislation, because it’s ludicrous to be discriminating against folks.” “I think they’re coming around, I think they’re seeing the light,” he continues. “Bruce Springsteen canceled a concert down there, and it’s kind of divesting. It’s the way it works in the world, it seems to be, because people are so invested in money—and so invested in capitalism—the only way to get people to wake up is to divest and say, ‘Look, we’re not going to do business with you if you’re going to treat people like second-class citizens and not give them their basic human rights. So do you want to just be on your own and out of the loop, or do you want to play ball with the rest of the world and make a progressive move into the future?’”
On a lighter note, the talk eventually shifted to the origins of the #Trollfoot—Danny DeVito’s obsession with taking photos of his foot everywhere he goes and then posting them to his Twitter account.
The #Trollfoot name, Lucy says, comes from the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia musical episode “The Nightman Cometh,” wherein DeVito’s Frank Reynolds plays the troll.
“Oh my god. The #Trollfoot, man. It’s so strange,” she says, laughing. “I remember when he first joined Twitter and started doing the #Trollfoot. We went on this family vacation to Vietnam, and he’s got the phone and he’s tweeting. We’d be taking family photos, then we’d go onto the next thing and he’d be staying behind taking a photo of his foot in front of some monument. We’d say, ‘You care more about that foot than us!’”“Now the #Trollfoot thing is huge,” says a chuckling Lucy. “But hey, my dad’s an eccentric kinda guy. That’s just who he is.”